50 years of playing, sleeping and eating a lot of bamboo for DC’s pandas

A story in three parts — Part 1: Zoo Director Brandie Smith and Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang decorate the cake. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)
Part 2: Adult pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, along with cub Xiao Qi Ji, inspect the cake. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)
Part 3: The pandas leave no trace that the cake ever existed. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)

Washington’s National Zoo was crawling with panda lovers Saturday, as the cuddly black-and-white bears munched on some special cake to celebrate 50 years in the nation’s capital.

Pandas arrived in the U.S. in April 1972 shortly after President Richard Nixon visited China and established normal relations with the country. Ever since, they have been here and visitors have flocked to the exhibit.

“There’s no question. This is the most popular exhibit in the zoo,” said Bryan Amaral, senior curator of mammals at the National Zoo.

Saturday morning, it was the hottest spot yet again as Mei Xiang and newest cub Xiao Qi Gi devoured a brightly-colored, panda-friendly cake made from dilute apple and pineapple juices with sweet potatoes, carrots, bananas — and of course, yellow grove bamboo.

Zoo Director Brandie Smith and Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang also made some finishing touches decorating the cake. After about 10 minutes of chowing down, the young cub decided it was his party to ruin, and flipped the cake over in the grass.

“He’s awesome. He’s the star of the show right now,” said Amaral. “There’s no question, they want to see him and what he’s doing and he’s been doing great. He’s hitting all the milestones. He’s a ball of energy. He’s entertaining.”

More than just entertaining countless zoo visitors over the last five decades, the presence of the pandas in D.C. have led to successful conservation efforts of the once-endangered species.

“A lot of it has been involved in sort of cracking the code on reproduction. Pandas are a little bit challenging to get to breed. And that has a lot to do with why they were critically endangered for many years,” said Amaral. “So, some of the work that we’ve done here has helped really move the needle and turn the tide on giant pandas in general.”

He said work with Chinese colleagues have made pandas the poster children for conservation of endangered species.

The National Zoo highlighted its expertise with the birth of Xiao Qi Ji. Mei Xiang gave birth to the cub at age 22, one of the oldest pandas ever recorded to have a cub. She was artificially inseminated.

WTOP’s Matthew Delaney contributed to this report.

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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